On the McCullagh scale of excitement we were registering “VERY” as we left for Luxembourg and the start of classicjourneys.co.uk European trip.
There were 30 cars entered, 60 people, and we were 4 cars, the fantastic 4: our Lotus Elan, a Healey 100/4 to M spec, an SL300 and a convertible A55 Austin Cambridge lookalike, which was much admired by the easily impressed who obviously hadn`t ever driven a Lotus.
That evening we met up with, as ever, a great bunch of others of like mind who tend to go on these sort of things, quite a few of whom we`d met before; notably the lovely Dee with her fetish for Tyrolean hats which I find, disturbingly, quite alluring. There was Ray, a most obliging mechanical wizard, who`s well worth knowing, especially as Steve`s idea of “light mechanical assistance” is half a wire coat hanger and a brand new roll of Sellotape. There was Richard Dalton who walks like he drives; like a cowboy, Steve and Jo who talk a bit funny, being southern and some who`d, quite rightly, prefer to remain anonymous. I have noticed before on Steve`s European trips that he does attract a small minority, a coterie, of regulars who, with no due respect whatsoever, appear, after due consideration , to be defined as flashing amber on the spectrum of odd. That`s Ok, it adds a bit of colour, it makes me feel reassuringly more normal, and it`s great to see Steve providing care in the European Community. If you were on the trip and don`t know who I mean………..then it`s you.
Day 1 started with really torrential rain and a 2 hour drive to a section of the Maginot Line where, underground, it was dry. There`s no history lesson here but if you get the chance to visit anywhere on this amazing, eerie, facility, it`s fascinating. We 4, the fantastic 4, had a leisurely lunch and were a bit late hitting the RN500, a great, sweeping run into the Black Forest. By then the heavens opened, maybe hell opened too, but it rained elephants and rhinos (that`s like cats and dogs but bigger) it was coming down in dustbins (that`s like buckets but bigger). The road was awash and we crept along this great driving road at maggot`s pace (that`s like snail`s pace but slower). The Black Forest was really black (that`s like black but darker), and we ended the day in Freudenstadt.
Day 2 began, sun out, hood down, shorts on, like the rest of the trip, with a run to Schramberg for a visit to a clock and car museum. Looking around all these old clocks was like stepping back in time, but the clock was ticking and we were off to Austria. The route was taking us, well, those who weren`t lost, along part of the Deutche Alpenstrasse which was simply stunning. Partly Tyrolean, it was a shame Dee and many others didn`t find it. On the route there were 3 separate diversions and as each, well signposted diversion, ended, there was no way of finding the way to the route book route. Evidently many resorted to the dreaded sat-nav which just takes the quickest route. Our map stayed in the boot and Tom Tom in the glove box, as a matter of principle. Relying on bushcraft, intuition, and just plain talent, we regained the route each time. It was great, as was our smugness. Later, on this glorious afternoon with the sun beaming down, suddenly my rear view mirror began to darken, there was a thundering noise and the whole road surface began to shake. Carole turned pale as I gripped the steering wheel, and Chris and Bernie ROARED past in their huge Aston Beastage. He must have floored the throttle, I could see his petrol gauge going down. Caught `em on the twisty bits, though, natch! Then on to Imst.
Day 3 and a trip to the mighty Stelvio, mighty busy, though we had a goodish run. There were, literally, hundreds of cyclists, all cycling considerately, unlike around here where many don`t. Much respect was due, and given, to them by all. Even Dee took her hat off to them. At the top it was, as ever, hugely busy with people buying “mementos”. Lots of people were taking mobile phone pics. of themselves, Stelfies they`re called. I believe people put pictures of themselves on Facebook for their friends to ignore. Obviously their like minded friends are too busy looking at their own pics, they`ve taken of themselves. Who wants to hear about other people`s holidays? Apart from you, dear reader. Seriously, I do think the rapid rise in bulimia, anorexia, and such like amongst the younger generation is due in some part to this self-obsession. I may have mentioned before the little known fact that the Stelvio was named after St. Elphio; the patron saint of people who aren`t very tall. Carole and I felt right at home.Through Bormio we then climbed the Gavia pass which, though narrow and a bit rough in places was just brilliant with hardly any traffic. Lunch at the top, and a photo of 3 of the fantastic 4, then a run down and on to Bassano Del Grappa. Like all good tourists we wandered down to the old Grappa brewery at the end of the incredible old wooden bridge. Naturally, we purchased some glasses of this disgustingly evil brew and Alan suggested the location was perfect. You could wander onto the bridge and tip the contents of the glasses into the river. We`d had a great drive that day and I just felt sorry for the poor people who weren`t driving a Lotus Elan.
Day 4 was a day for the ladies and romantics, like me, rather than for driving. It was a trip to Venice which was lovelier than I`d expected. The water taxi trip, especially, was great though David got out of the boat on the same side as the jetty, which was disappointing. We hadn`t been before and it was key to persuading Carole to come along. Next year the Classic Europe goes to Scotland which we`ve done a few times on the Scottish Malts so Carole`s not keen. I may be looking for an alternative navigator of a non-masculine gender. There`s no age limit though, personally, I think twenty`s plenty. We spent the evening with more culture in Verona. I couldn’t get out of my head that great 1979 hit from the Knack: Duh duh duhda duh, duhda duh, My Verona. We had dinner on the pavement by the Arena. Delicious. Delightful. We saw Dee walking by.
Day 5 was our last day of the official trip with something of a highlight. I seem to recall that Steve McCullagh has some family connection with London, gold, the year 2012, and trap shooting, though I don`t recall him mentioning it. I was inspired by the Rio Olympics to maybe take up diving. Those skimpy Speedos look just the thing. I could take photos of myself and post them on the internet. Anyway, Steve had wangled an exclusive tour around the Beretta factory, museum, and engraving workshop near Brescia. I love factories, people making things, anything, from biscuits to bassoons. This was really special, especially the engraving. Enormously skilled engravers, mostly men, perhaps women don`t have the patience, spend 100s of hours creating the most intricate designs, some you can only see with a magnifying glass. Amazing. Northwards towards the finish in Trento we swooped by lake Garda, coffeeing at Riva Del Garda and dining at the farewell dinner where we fared well. Steve presented us all with 2 engraved shot glasses and a bottle of, you guessed it, Grappa. He`s such a joker.
But….the fantastic 4 had plans, go west not home. The weather was still amazing, hoods remained down, all 4 cars were running sweetly , though Tony`s Healey was leaking oil like the Torrey Canyon. We knew when we stopped for petrol whether Tony was ahead or behind on the road depending on the empty or full shelves of oil. We turned by Bagolino over 2 great passes, devoid of traffic; the Maniva and Croce Domini. I`d never made so many passes but it was motorway past Brescia, Milan and Turin. That all sounds very glamorous but imagine traffic like the M25 but filled with Italians who all wanted that bit of tarmac you`re on. There were frequent times of no forward progress but the crazy Italians were forever moving sideways, changing lanes as one moved then changing back, then forth. Crazy.
David had booked the hotels for the route home and chosen a lovely one in Oulx. He insisted it was pronounced Oiks which seemed appropriate but it`s really “ooh” as in Sauze d`Oulx up the road, of course. One of many skiing places we visited, the best yet to come and the reason for our westward route. The next morning we were off to cross the Col d`Isere to Val d`Isere passing through various others. What a dramatic route, just stunning. We`d done it the other way, some years ago, from France to Italy but this way was better still, especially leaving those crazy Italian drivers behind. Much photographing, twisting, turning, and loving, that`s a Lotus Elan type of loving, we dropped down into town for coffee. There were just a few cafes open and not much else at this time of year, even the ladies hairdresser was closed. I see they`ve not taken up my suggestion for a change of name; “Val Does Hair”. Obviously we stopped for petrol at the Elan garage then on to a lovely lunch at a lovely spot on the bank of Lake Annecy. You can only imagine how many times my wife thanked me for taking her to so many lovely places. Sadly, I only ever got to imagine it too. We had some lovely driving on typical French secondary roads. Here`s a pic. of us following the A55 lookalike.
Overnight at another great choice of quirky small hotel in Gevrey- Chambertin which was, again a great choice from Dave, then a drive the next day to Pierrefonds which looked nice but was run down and shabby. Unlike the hotel which was run down, shabby, dirty and smelly. The pictures looked great and the owner clearly has many friends who tell fibs on Trip Advisor. What a shame. The 2 good restaurants in town were closed on Sundays so we ate in a snack bar. The breakfast was adequate but they didn`t have a toaster. I think toasters are the best thing since sliced bread. Don`t go there.
Our final day foreign, we headed for the ferry then home the next day still gloriously warm in this September Indian summer and 2541 miles covered. The car had the usual kiss on the bonnet badge, then a good wash. Unlike a beautiful woman, I prefer the Elan not to be a bit mucky.